Real or Not Real: Stravinsky’s Puppet Tale


This time around we delve into the complicated visual and aural spectacle that is Stravinsky’s ballet, “Petrushka” (a.k.a Petrouchka or Петрушка).  Like Stravinsky’s other ballet, the Firebird, the plot is decidedly Russian focusing on the traditional Russian puppet (Petrushka), taking place during a carnival celebrating the Maslenitsa (Russian lent), and even featuring a dancing bear (note: bears are a big deal in Russian i.e. the name of the former president, Medvedev is very close to the word “medved” or “bear” resulting in relentless teasing via newspaper cartoons). Petrushka, is a stock character of Russian folk puppetry (a.k.a rayok) known at least since the 17th century. Petrushkas were used as marionettes, as well as hand puppets and were traditionally identifiable as a kind of a jester distinguished by red dress, red kolpak, and often a long nose.  Stravinsky began work on the ballet in 1911 and premiered the work at the Théâtre du Châtelet on June 13, 1911 under conductor Pierre Monteux. The production was a feature of the Ballets Russes (The Russian Ballets); an itinerant ballet company from Russia directed by Sergei Diaghilev and widely regarded as the greatest ballet company of the 20th century. Incidentally, the title role was danced by Vaslav Nijinsky, cited as the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century.

Musically the ballet is characterized by a specially created “Petrushka Chord”, consisting of C major and F♯ major triads played together, heralding the appearance of (you guessed it) Petrushka! The ballet as we know and love it today is likely played with the regards to the considerable re-orchestration by maestro Stravinsky that took place in 1947. He purportedly penned the revised version of Petrushka for a smaller orchestra, in part because the original version was not covered by copyright and Stravinsky wanted to profit from the work’s popularity. The ballerina’s tune is assigned to a trumpet in the 1947 version instead of a cornet as in the original. The 1947 version provides an optional fortississimo near the piano conclusion of the original. Stravinsky also removed some of the difficult metric modulations in the original version of the first tableau from the 1947 revision.

In case you were interested…

Compared to the 1911 version, the 1947 version requires: one less flute; two fewer oboes, but a dedicated English horn player instead of one doubled by the fourth oboe; one fewer bassoon, but a dedicated contrabassoon; neither of two cornets, but an additional trumpet; one fewer snare drum and no tenor drum, thus removing the offstage instruments; no glockenspiel; and one fewer harp.

In 1921, Stravinsky created a piano arrangement for Arthur Rubinstein entitled Trois mouvements de Petrouchka, which the composer admittedly could not play himself for lack of adequate left hand technique.

An interesting cultural aside, the Russian Children’s Welfare Society (RCWS) hosts an annual “Petrushka Ball”, named after Stravinsky’s star-crossed Petrushka who fell in love with the graceful ballerina.

Here is a recap of the plot:

The ballet opens on St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square during the celebratory Shrovetide fair (a Russian Mardi Gras if you will).  An organ grinder and two dancing girls entertain the crowd to the popular French song “Une Jambe de Bois” (notice the reference to the French, reflecting Russia’s obsession with French culture) before giving way to drummers introducing the enchanting Charlatan (magician). To the amazement and curiosity of the crowd, The Charlatan plays a short diddy on the flute, bringing to life three puppets that then proceed to dance a rigorous Russian Dance. Of these puppets is (obviously)”Petrushka”, a rather uppity “Ballerina” (more on this later), and a “Moor” (unfortunately the character was traditionally performed by a white dancer painted in black face, causing quite the racial uproar… this is beside the point).

Following this joyous performance, the mood becomes considerably darker when we are taken to the scene of Petrushka’s backstage prison. The walls are painted in dark colors and decorated with stars, a half-moon and jagged icebergs or snow-capped mountains. With a resounding crash, the Charlatan kicks poor Petrushka into this barren cell. Through some virtuosic and often, well, interpretive choreography we learn that Petrushka is magically possessed with human feelings including bitterness toward the Charlatan for his imprisonment as well as love for the beautiful Ballerina. To add insult to injury, a frowning portrait of his jailer hangs above him as if to remind Petrushka that he is a mere puppet. The understandably indignant clown-puppet shakes his fists at the portrait and then proceeds to attempt escape from his cell but, alas, he fails pathetically. This is about the time the Ballerina enters randomly through the door (I think we are to believe the magician sends her in?). Petrushka tries to impress her and share his true feelings but she cruelly disregards all his gestures of adoration. Apparently, even as they are entrapped in the same cell, Petrushka is too low for miss high and mighty on the totem pole.

Next the audience is transported to the far superior, spacious, and lavishly decorated room of the Moor. Rabbits, palm trees and exotic flowers decorate the walls and floor. The Moor reclines on a divan and plays with a coconut, attempting to cut it with his scimitar. When he fails he believes that the coconut must be a god and proceeds to pray to it… what? Anyways, the Ballerina again magically appears but this time her attitude is transformed. Attracted to the Moor’s handsome appearance she plays a saucy tune on a toy trumpet and dances a happy jig (is it me or is this character just more unlikeable by the minute?). Petrushka finally breaks free from his cell, and he interrupts the rather embarrassing seduction of the Ballerina. Petrushka attacks the Moor but soon realizes he is too small and weak. The Moor beats Petrushka. The clown-puppet flees for his life, with the Moor chasing him, and escapes from the room. So basically the bigger, prettier, shallow character gets the girl while poor Petrushka, with a heart burdened by hopeless unrequited love, is defeated in spectacular fashion. Not sure this is a great lesson to take home to the kids…

In the final scene we are again brought to a festive scene at night, complete with an array of apparently unrelated characters including the Wet-Nurses (who dance to the delightful tune of the folk song “Down the Petersky Road”), the peasant with the previously alluded to dancing bear, a group of a gypsies, coachmen, grooms, and masqueraders. Suddenly a frightened Petrushka runs across the stage, followed by an irrationally violent Moor brandishing his sword, and finally the Ballerina who watches in horror from the sidelines. The crowd is ablaze with outrage when the Moor catches up to Petrushka and slays him with a single blow. The police question the Charlatan about the apparent murder but in a rather reasonable move the magician holds the “corpse” above his head, shaking it to remind everyone that Petrushka is but a puppet. Satisfied, the crowd dissipates and the Charlatan begins to tow away the ruins of his property. All of a sudden, Petrushka’s ghost appears on the roof of the little theatre, his cry now in the form of angry defiance (to really drive the point home, Petrushka’s spirit thumbs its nose at his tormentor). Now completely alone, the Charlatan is terrified to see the leering ghost of Petrushka. He runs away whilst allowing himself a single frightened glance over his shoulder. The scene is hushed, leaving the audience to wonder who is “real” and who is not. Hm…

Allow me to include a youtube presentation of the ballet. If the plot is a little wacky, the music is extraordinary and the choreography is very eye catching:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: